Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.
Imagine you are on a jury for a court case involving a murder. After you take your seat, an attorney for the plaintiff, which is the party who filed the case, begins speaking to you. He tells you how the defendant, the party who allegedly committed the crime, has a history of violent acts. Moreover, he explains how the murder occurred. Finally, he explains a motive for why the defendant committed the murder; he further states that you will see this for yourself during the trial. After the plaintiff's attorney is finished speaking, the defendant's attorney begins telling you his side of the story. Ultimately, he indicates that the defendant did not commit the murder.
These two speeches are examples of opening statements. Opening statements are factual statements made by attorneys to explain the case. Opening statements are limited to the facts in the case. While one may provide legal theories, which are reasons for the defendant's actions, these statements may not be argumentative.
How Opening Statements Work
The plaintiff always provides their opening statement first, as this is the party with the burden of proof. The burden of proof is the standard that one must meet in order to prove their case. The defendant does not have to show that they are innocent; rather, the plaintiff must show that there is evidence to support the charges.
In a criminal case, where a defendant can face imprisonment, the plaintiff must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a crime. Reasonable doubt means that it is not reasonable to believe that the defendant did not commit the crime; in other words, it would be illogical to assume that the defendant did not commit the crime.
On the other side of the coin are civil cases, where the consequence is limited to monetary fines known as damages. In a civil case, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is liable by a preponderance of the evidence. This is a lower standard of proof than in a criminal case. This standard means that the weight of the evidence shows liability.
Let's say you are a juror on a case where the defendant is charged with committing a burglary. Before the trial begins, you will hear the plaintiff's attorney describe how the defendant was located outside of a bank where the crime was committed. You will also hear how the defendant had bags of money in his car. Finally, the attorney will explain how the defendant had plane tickets and a passport to another country. Thereafter, the defendant's attorney will explain how the defendant was mistaken for another person. Furthermore, the attorney will provide a review of the facts with an explanation for all of the allegations made by the plaintiff's attorney. Finally, the trial will begin.
Now let's look at an example of a civil case. Imagine you are on the jury in a case where the defendant, a physician, is being sued for medical malpractice. The plaintiff's attorney explains how the physician was intoxicated during the performance of a surgery. In addition, the attorney explains how the plaintiff incurred a heart attack and related damages. Thereafter, the defendant's attorney provides an opening statement whereby he indicates that the physician was not intoxicated, but simply sick with a cold. He states that there will be evidence presented to prove this. Finally, the trial begins.
Opening statements are factual statements made by attorneys in a case. The opening statement provides each side with an opportunity to present the facts and theories of a case. Criminal cases and civil cases have different standards of proof, and it is the responsibility of the plaintiff to prove the case against the defendant.
- plaintiff: the party who filed the court case
- defendant: the party who allegedly committed the crime
- opening statements: factual statements made by attorneys to explain the case
- legal theories: reasons for the defendant's actions
- burden of proof: the standard that one must meet in order to prove their case
- damages: monetary fines as the consequence in civil cases
After completing this lesson about opening statements, you should be able to describe how opening statements work in a court case, whether criminal or civil.
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